Relatives Left in Pain, Wondering if Ashes Were Mixed in Cremations

Times Staff Writer

Before she goes to sleep, Kate Kazue Iannone often thinks of her mother and wonders if she has found any peace in death.

Her mother, Tsuru Shiotani, lived a simple life, and her last wish was to be cremated and returned to Japan, where her ashes could be honored in three separate places: the Nishi Honganji Temple in Kyoto, the family altar in her son's home in Wakayama City and the family plot nearby, where her husband was buried.

But her wish, which seemed simple then, has become an endless source of sorrow, regret and bitterness to the family she left behind.

Because of suspicion surrounding the operators of the Lamb Funeral Home in Pasadena, which handled Shiotani's cremation in November, the family is not sure if the ashes they received were in fact their mother's.

Remains Rejected

Because of that uncertainty, the temple has refused to accept her remains, the family has stopped the 100 days of ritual that accompany a Buddhist burial, and only a few strands of hair saved by the family are buried in the family plot.

A copper urn of ashes still sits in a relative's home in Wakayama, and no one is sure what to do with it.

"My mother lived a good life," said Iannone, a Pasadena resident. "I just hope she is resting somewhere."

The operators of the funeral home, David Sconce and his parents, Jerry Sconce and Laurieanne Lamb Sconce, were charged on June 5 with 45 misdemeanor and felony counts that included illegally removing body parts, commingling human remains and multiple cremation of corpses.

The Sconces have said they have done nothing wrong and pleaded not guilty to all the charges last week in Pasadena Municipal Court.

But for Iannone and others whose relatives' cremation was handled by the Lamb Funeral Home or the crematoriums it operated, Coastal Cremation Inc. and the Pasadena Crematorium, the suspicion of wrongdoing alone has created doubt and confusion that may never be resolved.

"When I go to bed, I think about my husband and it all flashes back," said Dorothy Kivel of San Gabriel, whose husband's cremation was handled by the Lamb Funeral Home. "I do a lot of crying."

The criminal case against the Sconces began unfolding in January when San Bernardino County authorities searched Oscar Ceramics in Hesperia after neighbors in the area complained about odors emanating from the plant. Inside, investigators found several hundred pounds of unidentified human remains and two cremation chambers.

San Bernardino County authorities believe that David Sconce began burning bodies at the Hesperia facility after a November fire destroyed the Sconces' Pasadena Crematorium in Altadena.

John Gill, executive officer of the state Cemetery Board, said the board had suspected possible illegal activities by the Sconces for more than a year because of the unusually large number of cremations performed. More than 8,000 were performed in 1985, more than double the number done in 1984 and more than any other crematorium in the state.

'Real Suspicious'

"During this process, their cremation facility burned down and they still stayed in business," Gill said. "Then we got real suspicious."

Investigators also alleged that David Sconce may have been involved in selling body parts for research and medical purposes without the knowledge of relatives. According to police reports, gold fillings were illegally taken some bodies.

The Sconces' attorney, Roger Diamond, has denied any wrongdoing by the family and said no body parts were taken or cremated without the proper consent from relatives. He said that all cremations were properly done.

"I'm confident the remains belong to their loved ones," he said. "Everything was done in the appropriate way."

But the publicity and the type of allegations against the Sconces have made it impossible for many to lay aside their doubts.

"We would have never known," said Iannone's sister, Lucy Emi Nuno of Pasadena. "Maybe that would have been better."

Nuno and Iannone are among 11 families involved in a class-action civil suit filed in February against the Lamb Funeral Home, the Sconces and others. The suit, filed by San Francisco attorney Melvin Belli, claims the funeral home and its operators committed fraud, negligently misrepresented itself, interfered with human remains and violated its contracts with families, said Richard Brown, the attorney handling the case.

Like others, Nuno said she was shocked and confused when she first heard of the problems in Hesperia and has become increasingly uneasy about her mother's fate.

Her mother died Nov. 9, but by the time the family became suspicious in January, the ashes had already been sent to Japan. They notified relatives there, and the lengthy rituals involved in a Buddhist burial were halted. The family frantically began searching for a few strands of hair that Iannone saved so something could be buried in the family plot.

After months of worry, the family has come to accept that they will not be able to honor their mother's last wish.

At night, Iannone thinks of her mother and imagines her in a sort of limbo, unable to complete the circle of Buddhist ritual that she followed from birth to death.

A feeling of regret weighs on her because her mother was too old to return to Japan to die.

She was 95 years old and had been a housewife all her life. She was born in Japan, but spent much of her life in the United States, where the family had moved before World War II so her husband could work in the copper mines.

Just before the war broke out the family returned to Japan and was trapped there for the duration of the conflict. After the war the family returned to the United States, where she passed her last days working in her garden, sewing and traveling with her daughters.

Iannone said when she thinks of her mother, she feels sad and sometimes guilty that she was not able to complete her final responsibility and bury her in the Buddhist way.

But Iannone said she is also feels anger at the Sconces.

Sometimes she tries to believe the ashes in Japan are her mother's and that all her worry has been for naught.

But she said she will never be able to completely accept that and instead has tried to soothe herself by thinking that at least a few strands of her mother's hair will rest beside her father.

'It's Not Much'

"Three to four inches of her hair," Iannone said. "It's not much, but we will know part of her is there."

Making peace within the web of doubts has been a tenuous journey for most.

Kivel, who is also involved in the class-action suit, said she has given up hope of recovering and burying her husband's remains.

Her husband, Martin, who died Jan. 15, was to be cremated and his remains buried at the National Cemetery in Riverside.

But today, after five months of getting conflicting explanations of what happened to his remains, she has refused to accept any ashes from the funeral home.

Kivel's husband died five days before reports about the Hesperia facility began appearing in newspapers.

Kivel said she received her husband's death certificate several days later, stating that her husband had been cremated Jan. 21 at the Pasadena Crematorium, even though it had burned down in November.

Kivel said she was told about three weeks later that her husband's body had not been cremated and was being stored in a refrigerated section at the Lamb Funeral Home.

Brown, the attorney handling the class-action suit, contacted the funeral home about Kivel's remains and received a letter from Diamond dated April 1 stating that the body had been cremated Feb. 6 at a facility in Compton and his remains were at the Lamb Funeral Home.

"They keep bouncing Martin back and forth," Kivel said. "I just don't believe after all this that they are Martin's ashes."

Diamond said the confusion stems from the date and place of cremation listed on the death certificate, which he said was a mistake or a typographical error.

No Place to Cremate

Diamond said the body was kept at the funeral home because there was no place to cremate it after the Hesperia facility was shut down Jan. 20 by Hesperia fire officials who searched the facility. The Lamb Funeral Home arranged to have the body cremated at a Compton funeral home on Feb. 6, Diamond said.

He said the ashes at the Lamb Funeral Home will be sent to the National Cemetery in Riverside as soon as Kivel sends the documents on her husband's military service.

But Kivel said she doesn't plan to accept any ashes from the funeral home.

"I guess he never will have a place," she said. "He'd probably say to hell with it if he were alive."

Kivel, 72, has refused to tell relatives in the East about the situation and lies to them, describing the beauty around her husband's grave, to protect them from the anguish she has experienced.

But it has been more difficult to put her own mind at peace.

On Memorial Day she visited the Riverside cemetery and felt at a loss because there was no tombstone to visit and no place to leave flowers.

"Every night I think about Martin and how good I was to him, buying the kind of food he liked, making him comfortable, and then for this to happen," Kivel said. "They say time heals all wounds. We'll see."

Diamond sympathized with those who have suffered, but said the blame should be laid on the media and attorneys who have stirred up the issue.

"It is in their interest to build up these doubts," he said.

'Focus on Memories'

Diamond agreed the damage has been done and urged relatives to focus on memories of their loved ones.

"Memory is the most important thing. They should say to themselves that they have the proper ashes and let it go at that," he said. "Why create grief when none exists?"

But Celia Drevlo of Fontana, whose husband, Clifford, died in January and whose cremation was handled by Coastal Cremation, said memory alone is not enough.

Last month, she visited the National Cemetery in Riverside, where she buried the ashes she received. She comforted herself by trying to believe the remains buried there were her husband's.

But she said the comfort she found then was tainted by doubt and bitterness, and probably always will be.

"He didn't want any fuss, but we cared about how we buried him," she said. "He was more than a gust of wind. He was part of our lives."

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